|Special thanks to guest commentator Bill Russell for authoring the biography on Bill Cody.|
Independent producers along Hollywood's Poverty Row generally needed every gimmick they could think of to attract the Saturday matinee crowd. It was tough in those days competing with the bigger studios. In the case of Westerns, what better than to give them the same name of a real-life Western hero.
So when a fellow actually named Bill Cody came to tinsel town, studio heads didn't have to conjure up some fake name to entice the audience. They had the real 'McCoy'.
Bearing no known relationship to the famous buffalo hunter and showman except for the moniker, the reel Bill Cody was born William Joseph Cody, Jr., on January 5, 1891 at St. Paul, Minnesota (some sources give Manitoba, Canada as his place of birth but I believe that is erroneous). Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Saint Thomas Military Academy in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and later St. Johns University in New York.
Fresh out of college, he joined the Metropolitan Stock Company and toured the U. S. and Canada for a number of seasons. His touring eventually led him to Hollywood in 1922 and he got a job, first as a stuntman, and then small bits as an actor.
When indie producer Jesse Goldburg was looking for a star, he signed Cody for a series of eight features for the 1924-1925 season. Cody had worked for Goldburg previously in two independent pictures under the name of Paul Walters.
Goldburg's Independent Pictures, while cheaply made, were smooth little westerns, shot in picturesque locations with good scripting and casting. J. P. McGowan, Robert N. Bradbury, and B. Reeves 'Breezy' Eason handled the directing. The first of the series was DANGEROUS DAYS, directed by McGowan. It was followed in short order by THE FIGHTING SHERIFF, with the remainder on the market within six months. Cody's Arabian horse, 'Chico', usually had a prominent role and he also rode a horse named 'King'. Of rather short stature he was a good scrapper and handled himself much in the style of Bob Steele. It was not unusual to see him take on comers of all sizes, and the bigger the better.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above is the title lobby card for THE FIGHTING SHERIFF (Jesse J. Goldburg / Independent Pictures, 1925).
(Image courtesy of Jay Wilsey's granddaughter and
daughter, Tamera Mankini and Frances Eldene Wolski)
Above from left to right are Bill Cody, an unidentified man, Wally Wales, and Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill, Jr.) is kneeling. This was probably taken sometime in the mid 1920s during a Pathé Company/Pathé Exchange exhibitor/distributor get-together. The back of this still has a notation of "Jean Brainerd Okla City" which may be the unidentified man. Wilsey's early silents for Lester F. Scott, Jr.'s Action Pictures were distributed by Weiss Brothers - Artclass, then Associated Exhibitors, and beginning about 1926, Pathé Exchange handled the westerns. In addition to Wilsey, Wally Wales was also starring in a series for Scott and Action Pictures. Circa 1927, Bill Cody also did a few silents for Pathe. There's a few more photos of Wilsey, Cody and Wales from this Pathe meeting in the Old Corral section on Buffalo Bill, Jr.
Following the Goldburg series, Cody made two pictures for Pat Powers' Associated Exhibitors, THE GALLOPING COWBOY, and KING OF THE SADDLE, released in 1926. That same year, he made ARIZONA WHIRLWIND for Myron Selznick through Pathe Pictures before forming his own production company. Probably the best of this series was BORN TO BATTLE (1927), with Cody doing some nice stunt riding and work with the bullwhip.
With the silent era coming to a close, Pathe dropped Cody's releases scheduled for the 1928-1929 season, leaving him without any work. However, he obtained a contract with Universal for three detective yarns that rounded out his silent career. He also toured with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Show in 1929 and was on the main card when Miller opened in Kansas City in March of that year. In 1930, Cody was introduced to sound, appearing in his first talkie, UNDER TEXAS SKIES, a Bob Custer starrer for W. Ray Johnston's Syndicate Pictures that also featured former silent star Lane Chandler. It was a somewhat bizarre and dark film with Cody held captive most of the time by an ape-like mute (Bob Roper). Not an auspicious start for the former silent star.
Nevertheless, Bill was back in the starring saddle when he signed with Monogram for a series of eight, co-starring young Andy Shuford (who'd previously appeared with John Wayne in THE BIG TRAIL) in what has been billed as The Bill and Andy Series. The pictures were popular and contained the necessary amount of action to sustain interest.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above are Bill Cody and Andy Shuford (1918?-1995) in a scene from LAND OF WANTED MEN (Monogram, 1932). Shuford's last name has one 'f', not two. A year or two later, Cody was using his real son, Bill Cody, Jr. as his sidekick/helper. Does Cody's large sombrero look familiar? Somebody else wore a similar style --- click HERE.
(Courtesy of Ed Tabor)
Above from L-to-R are Andy Shuford, Sheila Mannors (Sheila Bromley) and Cody in a lobby card from the lost/missing western LAND OF WANTED MEN (Monogram, 1932). Shuford is also shown in the round inset on the bottom right corner.
First off the production line was DUGAN OF THE BADLANDS (Monogram, 1931), with Robert Bradbury handling the directorial duties. Harry Fraser then took over and cranked out the remainder, last of which was TEXAS PIONEERS, released in 1932. (In addition to Cody, Monogram's other western star for season 1931-1932 was Tom Tyler. For release season 1932-1933, Tyler and Cody were gone, and Monogram replaced them with Bob Steele and Rex Bell.)
That year Cody joined the Bostock Wild Animal Circus with his Wild West show as the featured attraction. It's likely he continued into the next season since no film credits are shown for 1933. He returned to the screen the following year, doing three for Robert Horner's low-grade Aywon Pictures, of which BORDER MENACE (Aywon, 1934) has the dubious distinction of being termed "the worst B-Western ever made". BORDER GUNS (Aywon, 1934) fared only slightly better, benefitting mostly from a cast that included former silent stars Franklyn Farnum (in a good role), Fred Church, William Desmond, and Wally Wales. Then it was back to the sawdust trail for Cody, replacing Jack Hoxie as the star of the Downie Bros. Circus.
In late 1934, Cody signed up with producer Ray Kirkwood for a series released by Spectrum Pictures, although one, THE RECKLESS BUCKAROO (1935), was issued by Crescent Pictures. With the possible exception of THE TEXAS RAMBLER (Spectrum, 1935), the pictures fell somewhat below the quality of the Monogram series. Significant, perhaps, was the appearance of his son, Bill, Jr., in four of them. OUTLAWS OF THE RANGE (Spectrum, 1936) was the last of Cody's starring series, but not his last starring performance. It was back to the midway pit, touring the country with his Wild West Show for the next several years, appearing with several circus organizations, including possibly the Cole Bros. Circus.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above are Bill Cody Senior and Junior - and their trusty steeds - all dressed up in skeleton costumes to put a scare into Wally Wales and his gang of rustlers. Still from THE VANISHING RIDERS (Spectrum, 1935).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are lawmen Barney Beasley and Bill Cody about to meet up with an unidentified no good, Buck Morgan (moustache) and another unidentified baddie in a still from Cody's THE CYCLONE RANGER (Spectrum, 1935).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
|Left, Bill Jr. and his dad attend to the injured Ed Cassidy in THE RECKLESS BUCKAROO (Crescent/Spectrum, 1935).|
Bill Cody, Jr. (1925-1989) (real name: William J. Cody, Jr.) was the real life son of Bill Cody. In addition to sidekick roles with his father, the younger Cody did other films --- among his credits are portraying Nelson Eddy as a child in the Jeanette MacDonald THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST (MGM, 1938) and appearances in the chapterplays, SCOUTS TO THE RESCUE (Universal, 1939) and THE OREGON TRAIL (Universal, 1939).
|Cody Senior did nine films under the Spectrum banner, and Bill, Jr. was in four.|
There were tentative plans for more and on the right is a tradepaper ad announcing an eight film series with Bill Senior and Junior for the 1936-1937 release season.
Note the similar ad from Spectrum with info about their completed Cody films being available from "26 key exchanges" ... as well as the announcement of a 1936-1937 group of Cody Sr./Cody Jr. oaters.
Alas - plans changed and the Codys were out. Singing cowboys had become the rage, and Spectrum's new range hero for the 1936-1937 season was melodious Fred Scott.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
(From Old Corral image collection)
Bill Cody and his wife Regina had two sons, Bill, Jr. and Frank, and both boys were in the service during World War II. (Note the 1930 and 1940 census information listed below - Cody's wife is listed as Victoria and his two sons are William J., Jr. and Henry J.; appears he was married more than once).
Roughly 20 years ago, there was a story about a "Wild Bill" Cody/Bill Cody, Jr. living in Evansville, Indiana, and that person was either impersonating Bill, Jr. or it was a case of mistaken identity. Sometime after that story surfaced, someone located the real Bill, Jr., who was living and/or working in the Los Angeles area. See additional information from Bobby Copeland and Luther Hathcock at the bottom of this page.
A few years later, Cody returned to the screen briefly, playing a sheriff in George O'Brien's THE FIGHTING GRINGO (RKO, 1939), a cowboy in John Ford's epic, STAGECOACH (UA, 1939), and bits in two cliffhangers, G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON (Republic, 1943) and THE MASKED MARVEL (Republic, 1943). He may have appeared in other minor roles during the forties, but no credits have been found to confirm this.
The star of about three dozen silent and sound Westerns, plus three detective films, in a film career than spanned nearly 25 years, plus a Wild West Show performer in the tradition of his namesake, the "reel" Bill Cody died at Santa Monica, California, January 24, 1948 at the age of only 57. On a sad note, his son committed suicide in 1989 after losing his wife a year earlier.
Bill Cody may not have achieved the fame of the original Cody, but fans of those early, exciting days of Western filmmaking remember the feisty little battler as one of the true pioneers of the Western genre.
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Bill Cody never achieved a ranking in these polls.
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Bill Cody, Bill Jr., and Andy Shuford. Click below:
Bill Cody: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0168565/
Bill Cody, Jr.: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0168559/
William 'Andy' Shuford: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0795599/
Rick Albright checked the 1930 online census database for Cody and found him. Note that the census lists Cody as 30 years of age. In actuality, the Senior Cody would have been nearly 40 years old in 1930 (as he was born circa 1891).
7 April 1930, Los Angeles City, 772 N. Van Ness Ave., El Rito Apartments, lines 89 to 93 on census sheet 4B:
William J. CODY, renting @ $35, age 30, married @ age 21, born Minnesota, parents ditto, actor/moving pictures.
Victoria, wife, 29, married @ 20, born New York, parents ditto, no occupation.
William J. Jr., son, 4 yrs, 11 mos; single, born California.
Henry J., son, 3 yrs, 1 mo.; single, born California.
Theodore, brother, 16, single, no occupation, born Minnesota.
The Family Search website, California Death Records database, ProQuest obituaries, and other sources have additional information on Bill Cody and family:
Jim Tipton's Find-A-Grave website has a picture of the grave marker for Bill Cody, Jr. at Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19761
and the Senior Cody is interred in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11787305
About the "Bill Cody, Jr. in Evansville, Indiana" information/misinformation:
In 2000, Bobby Copeland provided information on the "Bill Cody, Jr. in Evansville, Indiana person". Bobby writes: "I offer the following comments from expert researcher, Luther Hathcock: On Jan. 2, 1986, the AP ran a story nationwide on a former radio performer born Frederick Garfield Penniman who changed his name to "Wild Bill" Cody and became a star of over 40 Westerns at Columbia. This man whose claim was far over exaggerated as star was now living in an Evansville nursing home at age 72. If he was in 40 Westerns, O. K. then where are his credits? We couldn't find them. Many people mistook this man to be the long lost B-Western kid star. Mentions appeared in publications that Bill Cody, Jr., was still around, now in an Indiana nursing home. When later informed of the mistaken identity, and the protest over it, Cody, Jr. found the matter amusing."
Researcher Luther Hathcock provided info about Bill Cody, Jr.'s passing in a December, 1989 writeup in Classic Images. Quote from that article follows:
"Bill Cody, Jr., the long lost western kid star of the 1930s is dead at age 64. He died in his Studio City, California apartment on August 11, 1989, a suicide. In a note left for his family, he stated how hard the past sixteen months had been without his beloved wife, Liz, and that he missed her so much that he no longer cared to go on living without her. Mrs. Cody died in 1988 of cancer."
The article also mentions the confusion with the other Bill Cody (Frederick Garfield Penniman) in an Evansville, Indiana nursing home.
So who was this other Bill Cody person in Evansville, Indiana who was confused with Bill Cody, Jr.? Click HERE for info on Frederick Garfield Penniman, AKA "Wild Bill" Cody, AKA Albert William Cody.